‘Liquid gold’: Why babies must be breastfed as early as possible
Written by Dr Anagha Kulkarni
What if I told you that there was an immunity-boosting, nutrient-packed superfood that helps newborns thrive, and it didn’t cost a cent? And that, in fact, your body automatically makes this super-powered substance after childbirth? It’s not magic…it’s colostrum, found in breast milk! A single drop of this liquid has more than 200 nutrients for your baby's health.
You may have heard of breast milk referred to as ‘liquid gold’ because of its rich benefits. The milk your body makes in the early phase of lactation truly fits that description. This milk from the first few weeks has many beneficial properties for the newborn. The colostrum in the milk is packed with immune-boosting components that seed the baby’s gut with good bacteria.
What is colostrum?
You probably know that it takes two to four days for breast milk to come in after giving birth. That’s the usual time it takes from the very first feed to the breasts becoming filled with milk. So, if the milk hasn’t come in yet, what exactly is your baby slurping down on day one? That’s the very precious ‘golden liquid’ called colostrum.
Colostrum is usually thick and yellowish, although even a clear, white-sticky or even a brownish honey colour is normal.
When do you produce colostrum?
A pregnant person’s body begins brewing colostrum during the second half of pregnancy. If you’re pregnant, you may have already noticed a tiny amount of yellowish substance oozing out of your nipple in the shower or in your bra.
Colostrum in breast milk is produced during pregnancy too, and the first two to five days postpartum. In these initial days, until the mature breast milk comes in, colostrum is all your baby needs. Newborn stomachs are quite small, so although it may seem like they aren’t eating much, colostrum is definitely filling that tiny tummy with top-notch nutrition.
Don’t worry if the volume of colostrum seems small. Your body produces exactly what your baby needs. A newborn’s stomach is quite small, so several spoons of colostrum per day is plenty.
Although newborn babies only need tiny ‘meals’, they do need to feed quite often (eight to 12 times a day).
Colostrum is a thick liquid which is very rich in nutrients and antibodies to protect newborn babies. It is often called the first step of a baby's immunisation. Colostrum has an especially high amount of bioactive compounds compared to mature milk, to give the newborn the best possible start to life.
Specifically, colostrum contains antibodies to protect the newborn against disease and infection, and immune and growth factors and other bioactives that help to activate a newborn’s immune system, jumpstart gut function, and seed a healthy gut microbiome in the first few days of life.
What does colostrum contain?
Colostrum is rich in immunoglobulin, proteins, sodium, chloride, potassium, vitamins, minerals, and leukocytes, which help protect the baby in the initial days after birth. Lactose, which comprises about 40% of the total calories in breast milk, promotes acid development in the gut, and helps brain growth.
Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), the third most abundant component in breast milk after lactose and lipids, are very high in colostrum. These are prebiotics that encourage the growth of the beneficial bacteria Bifidobacterium Infantis, which act as decoy receptors for pathogens in the gut including rotavirus, campylobacter and E. coli. Infantis produces sialic acid for brain development and is also helpful for protection against NEC (necrotising enterocolitis) in preterm babies.
The proteins in colostrum also provide essential amino acids for growth, infection protection, carriers for hormones, carriers for vitamins, enzymatic activity, and other bioactivities.
Whey proteins and alpha-lactalbumin, which help with lactose and amino acids, form HAMLET cells with oleic acid (which kills cancer cells). These are not found in cow milk.
Colostrum is also high in lactoferrin, an iron-binding protein that acts as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. It also inhibits the adhesion of E. coli and helps prevent diarrhoea. Colostrum also presents B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes which could help build the baby’s immune system. Immunoglobulins such as Secretory IgA, which help in building the baby’s lifelong immunity, are also present in colostrum.
Colostrum also has amino acids which help digestion, prevent allergies, decrease pathogens, and influence milk production. Amino acids such as tyrosine transmit brain and nerve impulses, and facilitate thyroid, pituitary and adrenal function.
There are also hormones such as leptin and ghrelin which help the baby realise that they are hungry. These two hormones are only present in breast milk and not in any baby formula or powdered milk.
Breast milk also has the fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA), which play an important role in brain and vision development. Long-term studies have shown that breastfed babies have greater vision and cognitive development (visual attention, problem-solving and global development) than formula-fed babies.
I suggest all mothers start breastfeeding as early as possible, ideally within the ‘golden hour’ (within half to one hour from birth), so that every baby gets the benefits of this ‘golden liquid’.
Consultant - Lactation
This article was published in association with Rainbow Children’s Hospital.